New York-World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. and its upstart XFL pro-football league received a major financial and legitimacy kick last week from a new partnership deal with broadcast network NBC.
Industry observers are now waiting to see whether the WWF will package a national XFL cable deal with its highly successful cable wrestling shows in what is expected to be a very lucrative television deal for WWFE.
Hoping to lure young male viewers to the network, NBC will become an equal owner with WWFE in the eight-team, "smash-mouth" football league, set to launch next February. The network will distribute the league' s games in primetime on ratings-challenged Saturday nights, executives said.
With a major broadcast deal in hand for the XFL, WWFE is focused on securing a national cable agreement for the league. XFL president of new business development Basil DeVito said there are at least two cable networks interested in an XFL cable package, but he would not reveal specific companies. He did say a deal would most likely be reached within the next 30 days.
Industry executives said a cable deal would likely go hand-in-hand with a new broadcast and cable deal for WWFE' s popular pro-wrestling franchise.
While USA Network currently carries the highly rated wrestling shows, including WWF Monday Night Raw, the WWF is talking with merger partners CBS Corp. and Viacom Inc. about a new multimillion-dollar deal that would encompass both broadcast and cable distribution of its various WWF shows.
Currently, Viacom-owned United Paramount Network televises the WWF' s weekly Smackdown series. Along with the network outlets, a CBS/Viacom deal would provide the WWF with marketing opportunities on networks targeting its teen audience such as MTV: Music Television and several CBS-owned male-
targeted radio stations.
Vince McMahon, the WWF chairman, would not say whether the company is leaning toward CBS/Viacom. He also would not say if the wrestling shows and the XFL would be packaged and offered to one cable entity.
But Pilson Communications president Neal Pilson believes an XFL cable deal will be linked to a new WWF wrestling agreement, which he feels will most likely go to CBS-owned The Nashville Network. CBS spokesmen would not comment.
A USA spokesman said the network will make its decision about the WWF' s future on USA when the time comes. "We love having the WWF, [and] we will be exploring many options with them," the spokesman said. "That said, it is important to note that the [first- quarter] Nielsen [Media Research] numbers indicate that USA Network would be No. 1 with or without wrestling."
NBC-which will own 50 percent of the league and its eight teams-will televise national XFL games on Saturday nights in primetime from February through April, including the league championship game.
NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said the network was excited to partner with WWFE and to get on the ground floor of a major professional-sports league.
WWFE announced the XFL scheme about one month ago, promising to deliver more hard-nosed action and less restrictive rules than the National Football League.
The deal comes nearly two years after NBC lost its NFL broadcast rights to CBS. The network last year abandoned plans to partner with Turner Network Television to launch a new football league.
"We' re excited to be a part of this historic and unique opportunity to launch a new football league to air on NBC at a time when the public' s interest in football is at its absolute peak-one week after the Super Bowl," Ebersol said.
The deal provides national exposure for the league, which McMahon said will be very television-friendly, deploying numerous cameras and mikes on and off the field.
The deal surprised many industry observers, who didn' t think the conservative General Electric Co.-owned NBC would cozy up with the more irreverent and controversial WWFE. The WWF' s popular wrestling shows have come under fire by some critics as being vulgar, racy and violent.
But the WWF does attract the advertiser-appealing male 18-to-34 demographic, which NBC is trying to reach. Ebersol said the WWF' s two-hour Raw generated 47 percent higher ratings within the 12-to-24 adult male demographic than ABC' s Monday Night Football last season.
"Saturday night is a night that' s ripe for the taking," Ebersol said. "We believe we' re getting the best marketer to promote to that audience in America."
While Pilson said he was skeptical about the long-term prospects of a new football league, he did say the combined NBC-WWFE marketing effort would provide a major advantage for the league.Further supporting the fledgling WWFE brand and market appeal, NBC will buy about 2.3 million newly issued shares of class-A WWFE stock at $13 apiece, for $30 million. That represents about 3 percent of
the total number of WWFE shares outstanding. will buy about 2.3 million newly issued shares of class-A WWFE stock at $13 apiece, for $30 million. That represents about 3 percent of
the total number of WWFE shares outstanding.